The front door of the house was ajar when Domanic Castillo and Julia Madera approached. They were looking for a teenager named Jason who’d missed the first five days of school at Northridge High in Greeley.
The boy wasn’t there, but his father was — dusty from working on renovations inside.
After Castillo explained that they hadn’t seen Jason at school yet, the man quickly dialed the boy’s mother and handed over his cellphone. Madera took the call and, speaking in Spanish, learned that the family planned to send him to one of the district’s alternative schools.
“She said she meant to call,” Madera said as she and Castillo returned to her SUV, ready for the next stop on their home visit list.
Castillo and Madera are on the front lines of a push to get kids back in school after a pandemic that compounded many of the problems that contribute to chronic absenteeism, including student disengagement, academic struggle and financial insecurity. The rationale is simple: Students have to be in class to learn.
The Greeley-Evans district in northern Colorado is one of many school districts nationwide using federal COVID-19 dollars to fund attendance-boosting efforts. The 22,000-student district is in the second year of a three-year, $644,000 contract with the Denver-based consulting company Zero Dropouts to track down missing high schoolers and help them catch up on coursework or credits.
Castillo, the Northridge cheer coach, and Madera, a former secretary at the school, are among 14 Zero Dropouts employees, also known as attendance advocates, embedded in the district’s five high schools this year. They have a host of responsibilities, from helping out in classes and monitoring hallways to calling and visiting the homes of absent students.
The job is part detective work, part social work and part paperwork.
Before the pandemic, 35% of Greeley-Evans students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 10% or more of school days. That number rose to 40% during the 2020-21 school year, well above the state rate of 26%.
Lanny Hass, special projects manager at Zero Dropouts, said advocates help intervene quickly when warning signs pop up: an increase in absences, a grade that’s fallen to a D or F, or problematic behavior. The team works in tandem with counselors, mental health specialists and other school staff.
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